Bruce Hampton Brings Madrid Express to the Garage
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Bruce Hampton released his first album in 1971, which means he’d been playing for as long as I’d been alive when a friend turned me on to the 1992 release, Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit. If the name alone didn’t grab my attention, the artistry of the players””names like Jeff Sipe, Oteil Burbridge, Jimmy Herring””surely did. They were all young then, but inescapably talented, and a great side show to the man behind the microphone. By the time I’d heard Hampton sing “Time is Free”, “Fixin’ to Die”, and “Basically Frightened”, I was a fan for life. The next year’s release, Mirrors of Embarrassment, had the gem of a title track in addition to the standout tracks, “Dead Presidents”, “Egos Underwater”, and “Lost Mule in Texas”.
I was lucky to see Col. Bruce and the ARU in Raleigh on a H.O.R.D.E. tour in the early 1990s and later again in Winston- Salem at the original Ziggy’s when Hampton toured with his band, Fiji Mariners. I missed out on a chance to interview the Colonel back in the late summer when the ARU came through the state on their reunion tour.
Getting a chance to catch up with Col. Bruce Hampton in advance of his appearance with his new band Madrid Express on Friday at The Garage in Winston-Salem was a quick surprise, but one I took full advantage of last week. Hampton spoke to me from his home in Atlanta.
YES! Weekly: Bruce it’s great to speak to you today. What are you up to this week and how are the Madrid Express shows coming?
Bruce Hampton: They’ve been great.
We’re playing Tennessee and South Carolina this week. It’s been great. The ARU toured across America this summer. With Oteil who you’ll see tomorrow night. (Editor’s note: I had mentioned to Hampton that I would be seeing the Dead and Company show in Greensboro this past Saturday. Oteil plays bass in that band currently.)
Y!W: How was the ARU reunion? I missed the chance to interview when you came to Raleigh. How was that?
BH: It was incredible. Branford Marsalis sat in with us the whole night, so that was wonderful. A couple of weeks before we had John McLaughlin the whole night. It was thrilling, man. Branford is just amazing.
Y!W: One of the questions I had wanted to ask if I’d had the chance when you came to Raleigh was back when you played with the ARU they were all young and not as phenomenally popular as they are now. What was it like getting back with them, especially after Jimmy and Oteil have just become so universally admired by rock lovers?
BH: Nobody knew them back in those days, no one. It was exactly the same. We hadn’t lost a beat. We have a special chemistry that is just absolutely amazing. It’s bigger than we are. The chemistry works and we don’t know why. We don’t question it. Mathematically it makes no sense. It’s like one and one is two but what’s one? We don’t question it.
Y!W: When you played with those guys originally and made Mirrors of Embarrassment did you think they would one day go on to grow as much as they have?
BH: There was no question. They were great when they were 25 but you could see the leaps and bounds. Everyday they were growing, which was amazing. Once they get about 25/26 they have their own voice, which is critical in music. That’s the whole key. At 21 and 22 you are searching and they were already fine players, but they just found their voice.
Y!W: Tell me about the Madrid Express? What is it? How did you come up with Madrid Express and what are you doing with it?
BH: I have no idea ever what I’m doing.
We have a very talented 20-year-old bass player named Brandon Boone who is absolutely amazing on electrical or standup.
We have a very strange guy named Pablo Cepeda on drums who’s from Madrid. That’s why we have the name Madrid Express. Then Jacob Deaton is the only guy I know from Hazard, Kentucky and he plays guitar. We try to play every type of music there is. I haven’t changed in 50 years. I try to keep Americana music going, you know, with a touch of the weird. We play country music, I just don’t know which country. I’m not sure. There are three or four songs that I’ve been doing for 50 years that we play every night. We write new stuff. We have a blast playing. I never have been interested in the commerce of it all, I just enjoy playing quite a bit.
Y!W: How did he hook up with these guys and how did the group come to be?
BH: Wow. I have no idea. It just collapses into place. I just never have an idea how anything ever works. It’s not thought out. It just sort of happens.
Y!W: How did you get started on a touch of the weird? I know from the beginning, Hampton Grease Band was labeled “avant garde”, but what about you and your upbringing or experiences pushed you in that direction?
BH: Boy I just can’t give you an honest answer. It’s just my natural beam, I guess. I like every pure form of music, from country to blues to rock, and then I like it with that touch of just unexpected, unpredictable weirdness to it. I wish country acts would dribble a basketball in the middle of their set. Or just something different to put another color to it. Do the impossible. Set fire to an Altoid or something. Just do something unpredictable. Then it makes the other stuff really take off. Duke Ellington said the only reason he played was to do hijinks. The band was the best and all they did was silly Marx Brothers stuff, but it worked. Put it this way, there’s joy in the music. That’s what it’s about. It doesn’t say anywhere in the Bible “make music.” It says, ‘make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” That’s the ticket. Put some joy in it.
Y!W: Tell me a little bit about your upbringing, how you were exposed to the guitar and how you got started down the music path.
BH: I grew up in Atlanta. My grandfather and uncle were major generals, so I’ve always been surrounded by the military. My uncle was an actor. I just finished a movie with Fred Willard called Here Comes Rusty, and that should be out hopefully in April or sometime. I don’t know, it’s just like an unexpected destiny. I was an accountant, a very shy guy, and the next thing you know I was on stage. I never planned anything and I do wake up everyday and go ‘what am I going to do when I wake up?’ It’s all a mystery to me. I wish I could give you a straighter answer.
Y!W: What are the couple of songs that you’ve been playing for 50 years that you play at every show?
BH: One is “Time is Free”, the other is “Fixin’ to Die”. Those two always make it into the set list somehow. There are a couple of others that are real old, “Compared to What”, we can’t get rid of them.
They just play themselves.
Y!W: “Time is Free” is one of my favorites from the first ARU album that you all recorded live. Did you write that song or how did that come about?
BH: A good friend of mine named David Earl Johnson wrote it in the 1960s with a keyboard player Jan Hammer. We’ve taken it and made it our own. The premise was written by an obscure great composer named David Earl Johnson.
Y!W: Another one of my favorites that you’ve always done is “Basically Frightened”. Did a guy named Tinsley Ellis write that song?
BH: He was in the studio with me and Ricky Keller and it sort of all happened at once.
Y!W: Do you have a lot of young guys clamor to play with you and sort of follow in the footsteps of ARU?
BH: I feel honored when anybody wants to play with me. We get requests and I just ask them who their favorite musicians are, number one, and if they don’t get past 1960 then I’m not interested. I don’t care about modern rock. I want them to be able to play Latin, jazz, understand Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Stravinsky and Miles Davis. We’re just a jazz band parading as a rock band, basically, or a bluegrass band that’s a blues band. I want them to know Earl Scruggs and Hank Williams. That’s important to me. I don’t care about the modern people. I’m not interested in musicians that don’t go a little bit deeper. I want them to know tunes. That’s critical. I don’t reject anyone. They don’t need to be there unless they want to be there. It’s a brutal, hard world.
Y!W: How tough is it for you to stay committed to this life for 40 or 50 years.
BH: It’s been 53 years now so it’s habit.
Late at night is when it gets tough. I do one tour a year, one three-week tour, the rest of it is two and three days. I’m pushing 70 so it gets rough. It’s not like it used to be, you can’t bounce back as quick. It’s like Peyton Manning now that he’s 40. He said he can’t even touch his toes some games. I don’t know how he plays in the NFL at 40 years of age.
Y!W: Remind me, did you play at the Atlanta Pop Fest in 1970?
BH: I sure did. It was alphabetical order: Hampton, Havens and Hendrix, so I saw Hendrix play. I’m in the movie with Hendrix that just came out on Showtime, if you get a chance, “Electric Church.” I haven’t seen it yet, but I think I’m in it five or six times. It’s Hendrix at the pop festival.
Y!W: What was that like?
BH: It was 108 degrees and I never thought I would play in front of 300,000 people. It was actually not a lot of fun because it is sort of impersonal when you have 300,000 people. When you play a 100-seat club it’s a different thing. But you’d look out there and there would be people for miles in every direction. It was a blast. It was 44 years ago. Wow.
Y!W: That Hendrix at Atlanta Pop Festival is one of my favorite recordings, right up there with Mirrors of Embarrassment.
BH: I’m humbled.
Y!W: I want you to know this, I’ve trained my son, who’s now 10, over the years to say “a stained soul cringes at the small details in the mirrors of embarrassment.” (Bruce laughs for about 10 seconds.)
BH: I’m humbled. That’s hysterical. I hope he doesn’t get mad at you when he’s 20.
Y!W: You’ve played in a lot of units over the years, of your own making, which do you think was the most unique or most challenging for you as far as the music goes?
BH: It was a group called the New Ice Age, which is just about impossible to find, and that was in the mid-1970s. Piano player named Dan Wall, who’s gone on to become one of the great jazz piano players, guitar player from Vienna named Karl Ratzer, who just retired. That was a great group, Billy McPherson, he passed away, that was the most exciting group. It was another level of music. They were world-class players and some stuff would happen. Some magic would happen.
Y!W: What else about the Madrid Express do you want people to know?
BH: I don’t know what to say. It’s like every group I’ve been in we do have joy, hopefully, unless we’ve driven 3 million miles. We play basically rock, country and jazz, every type of American music. As long as it’s from the heart is all I care about. It’s pretty hard to pigeon hole us. We’ll do two bluegrass tunes, two swing tunes, two rock tunes. We’re changing it all the time. We’re never bored, that’s what I like.
Y!W: What does Brato Ganibe mean?
BH: It’s bra’-to ga-nibe’ and that’s the best question. It means universal peace or canoeist. You can take either one. It’s my mantra basically. !